What is Success?

Success is a word that needs some help. We all want success in our life, our careers, and for our organizations. Even people who say they do not want success do want to be successful in living a life well lived.  It seems to be an innate drive. Yet we struggle to create success, to be successful, to feel good about where we’re going and how we’re getting there.

I believe confusion about the term “success” is, in part, what’s getting in our way. So let’s define it in a way that works. We’ll start with why it’s not working.

Confusion abounds

To many, being successful in life means having some unspecified amounts of wealth, status, organizational or political power, and fame. Sometimes qualified as “economic and political success,” most people and their organizations strive to attain or struggle against this version of success.  And when the struggle, some people even come to dislike the word “success” and disengage.

It’s not hard to see why we have this default definition of success. Our institutions, habits, and traditions all seem to run using this version of success as fuel. The economic and political crises we have seen recently and throughout history came in part from fear, greed, and despotism. These, I believe, are natural outcroppings of our traditional definition of success. And it’s not true that economic and political successes are wrong or bad in and of themselves. They just, on their own, form an incomplete picture.

Five things missing

Most of us know, consciously or unconsciously,  that “economic and political success” is an incomplete definition of success. We know or eventually learn that after achieving some level of economic and political success, something always will still be missing. And we know or eventually learn that further attainment of economic or political success will not fill the void.  There are five related things missing from our traditional definition of success:

  1. It’s not specific. We strive or struggle with an amorphous goal of success. No where in the definition do we see a specific goal. We never hear, “When you make $X million, you are a success,” or “When you’re the president of the company, you are successful.” With nothing specific to measure, we have no way of knowing how or whether we’ll succeed.
  2. It’s not iterative. The traditional definition of success seems to imply that there’s just one goal to attain (even if it is amorphous). “If you achieve that goal then you will be set, life will be grand, and you will be happy. You will have arrived!” That’s not how life works. Life is an apparently never-ending quest for success. Whenever you succeed at anything big or small, it feels good. That good feeling eventually fades as you look about and see more things to do and opportunities to succeed.
  3. It doesn’t make room for the rest of life. Money and power are important. They help us do stuff with more speed and ease.  And they are not enough. We all know or have heard that money and power can’t buy you love, health, or happiness. We’ve heard about or experienced the pain of loss when a rich and powerful person or organization ignores the rest of life: their family/partners, community, health, environment, or understanding. And we’ve seen how the a not-so-rich or not-so-powerful person or organization struggles when they want to care about “the rest of life.”
  4. It’s “either-or.” Many of us believe that we and our organizations can either “be successful” (in the traditional way) or pay attention to “the rest if life.” Doing both, we think, is too difficult.
  5. It’s not personal. The measures of success are somehow defined and held outside of us or our organizations. We compare ourselves and our organizations to unspoken external criteria. Whether we meet those criteria or not, we have the feeling–sometimes ignored–that something is missing or wrong. The child who asks, “Why do I have to do this?” in school, the adult who asks, “Is this all there is?” and the organization who asks, “How do we differentiate, compete, or make an impact?” all struggle against externally–if amorphously–defined criteria for success.

Clarity will help

Despite this faulty definition, we are making progress. More and more, we recognize the needs for things like work-life balance, smarter ways to make money, an education system that works, and even political institutions that serve something more than their own desire to be in charge.

A better definition of success–one that fill in the gaps listed above–will help us all have even more of it.

A better definition

Here’s what I think is a better definition.
Success is the result of us improving something we’ve desired and decided to improve.
It’s kind of simple isn’t it? There are three more statements we can add to this definition to round it out.

We know it’s a success because it feels good.

We will never be done because as soon as we’ve created one success, we’ll see what else there is to improve.

Being successful, or leading a successful life, means recognizing and using our capacity to create successes.

Together, these statements make up a working definition of success that us specific (“improving something we’ve desired and decided to improve”). iterative (“we’ll see what else there is to improve”), personal (“something we’ve desired”), and includes everything (there’s room for making money and having a life, for sustaining organizational health and being the top in the field, we just have to desire and decide for it).

Let’s hear from you

Would this work for your or your organization? Have you already been operating as if this or something like it was the definition of success? How might your re-state it?

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